To put Yankton's early days into historical perspective, here are several dates and details to keep in mind:
1. On March 2, 1861, President Buchanan signed the bill creating Dakota Territory two days before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated to succeed him.
2. Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor was captured by Confederate troops on April 14, and a day later President Lincoln declared an "insurrection" to exist, in effect, marking the beginning of the Civil War.
3. On March 17, 1862, the first territorial legislature convened in Yankton, seemingly oblivious to the great conflict taking place elsewhere in the country, including the delayed news that the Union Monitor had subdued the Confederates' Merrimac in the first battle of iron-clad warships a week earlier.
4. The Homestead Act, so important to the settlement of Dakota, was created on May 20, 1862.
With these facts at hand, one can view the developments in Yankton more realistically.
In general, the citizens were Union sympathizers, many having origins in Yankee New England. However, the distance away from the battlefields and the excitement of creating a new government in a new land diluted interest or involvement in the War Between the States.
Until August 1862, that is!
On the 18th of that month, the Santee Sioux in Minnesota under Chief Little Crow precipitated an uprising, which sent a wave of fear throughout the adjoining Dakota settlements.
Because of the treatment they received, there was some justification for the Santees' rebellion; their leadership apparently chose that particular time because they assumed that federal troops would be too involved in the war against the Confederates, who — it was rumored — helped stir up the Indians.
No one has exactly pinned down how many settlers were killed during the relatively brief confrontation, but estimates have ranged from 490 to a high of 800, many at New Ulm, Minn. Military authorities rushed aid to the region, and eventually more than 2,000 Indians were taken prisoner. Thirty-eight of them were hanged from a single scaffold in Mankato in late December, a revengeful act of which no one can be justifiably proud.
Meanwhile, however, small bands of Santees scattered out into Dakota, spreading terror among unprotected whites then taking advantage of the Homestead Act. On Aug. 25 Judge J. B. Amidon and his son, William, were killed by one of these marauding parties as they worked in a hay field less than a mile from the village of Sioux Falls.
When the news of this attack reached Yankton, Gov. Jayne quickly issued a proclamation that every male citizen in the territory between the ages of 18 and 50 should enroll in a company for home defense "with such arms as he may have in his possession." In Yankton the men gathered in the Episcopal chapel on the evening of Aug. 30 to form their unit. Frank M. Ziebach, co-founder of the Weekly Dakotian, was elected captain.
It was an unusual army, to say the least, with no uniforms and a strange array of personal weapons — but the Indian scare was real, and the Yanktonians moved quickly to protect themselves. Plans were made to erect a stockade capable of withstanding a major onslaught.
Rumors were rampant, of course, and fear of a sudden attack goaded the people into action. Men grabbed shovels and axes and began to build the box-shaped fortification centered generally at the intersection of Broadway and Third Street.
The exact details and descriptions of the hurriedly-built fortification are somewhat controversial. Recollections of old-timers have provided conflicting information and sketches of doubtful accuracy. Probably the most reliable source was George W. Kingsbury, first corporal of the home guard company and later historian of note, who recalled:
"The first thing we did in the way of defense was to lay out and erect a stockade which embraced approximately a quarter of each block surrounding the corner of Third Street and Broadway, the street intersection being in the center.
"The work was square, each face about 450 feet long, with flanking block houses at the northeastern and southeastern corners.
"The north wall, which was built first, was an ordinary breastwork made by excavating a ditch about six feet wide and six feet deep and throwing the earth behind it. … The east and west walls were constructed of lumber [two rows], filling the space between with earth.
"The south wall, nearest the river which was completed last, was simply a stockade wall formed of a double row of fence posts with their tops about five feet above the ground. The sally port, or gate, was in the middle of the south wall, and it was defended by a bronze field gun."
Not only Yanktonians but people from Bon Homme, Sioux Falls and elsewhere came to the stockade for protection from the danger they feared would come.
Conditions inside the redoubt were necessarily cramped and uncomfortable but barely to the point of great suffering. Water was available from the Ash Hotel well, and enough food had been brought in and assigned to Capt. Ziebach to keep the occupants adequately fed.
Many of the single men worked outside the walls during the daytime, gathering additional provisions, tending stock, manning sentry posts and cutting wood. At night almost everyone not on duty slept within the walls, with women and children getting first consideration inside the hotel, the saloon and the other buildings within the enclosure.
For several weeks almost 300 anxious individuals lived in and around the stockade, nervously expecting an attack but hoping it would never come. They worried especially that the Yankton Sioux might join the Santees and create a formidable force.
During this period many faint-hearted settlers left the Territory, and that included most, if not all, of the government appointees. Moses K. Armstrong, a private in the Dakota militia within the stockade and later the Territory's delegate to Congress, had little regard for what he called "our weak-kneed, cowardly, runaway officials." He wrote:
"To-day there is not one of our officials in the Territory. … These brave and 'loyal' dignitaries, at the first approach of a red man, are the first to leave the country; and with such rapidity do they fly, pale and breathless for the states, that a boy could play marbles on their horizontal coat-tails. And on they go, governor, secretary, judges, attorney general, clerks … disappearing on the far shore of the Big Sioux river. Safe in Sioux City, under the protection of four military companies and a battery, these 'loyal' officials, like rats in a haystack, stick their heads from under their wives' multitudinous crinoline, and whisper with white lips, 'Are they coming?'"
As it turned out, the Indians did not come in force, and the expected Battle of Yankton never materialized. However, small groups of renegades did roam the area and were involved in at least two incidents at the Jim River east of the capital during the summer of 1862.
Originally published May 2, 1994